Parsifal - Opéra Bastille, Paris, 4 March 2008
I wondered if we were going to get a five hour concert performance when I saw the opening set-up for this Parsifal -- a giant white screen fronted by a row of perspex chairs. But as the Vorspiel began, so did the video show. First a ten foot hand rose to scrawl the words amour, foi, esperance on the screen, then there were drawings of the grail, the spear and the cross. So far so obvious.
2001:A Space Odyssey
Christof Schlingensief's infamous Bayreuth Parsifal borrows visual ideas from the final section of Kubrick's most Wagnerian of movies, 2001.
The next move of this Parsifal's director, Krzysztof Warlikowski was to go one step further than Schlingensief, and screen a few minutes of the film itself. Were we expected to be cine-literate enough to recognise the movie, and contextualise the parallels between Dave's 2001 odyssey and Parsifal's journey to enlightment? Or was it just, source aside, a cool clip of an bed-ridden old guy that had an immediate resonance in Parsifal's elderly Titurel, or perhaps the sick Amfortas?
It contrasted stylistically with everything that followed, and was a puzzling way to fill a visual gap that had no need of filling - Hartmut Haenchen did a magnificent job in the pit from the off, bold in his breakneck pacing and fearlessly extreme dynamic shifts - it would have been more than ehough simply to listen.
The screen then rolled away to show that the production budget had stretched to some real scenery as well. In front of a huge amphitheatre, red-gowned medics toiled at the bedside of Amfortas (another movie quote, this time Cronenberg's Dead Ringers) as the Vorspiel drew to a close.
And all that before anyone had even sung a note.
Once the screen had been stowed, we had a little relief from spot-the-movie-reference, and Warlikowski's staging turned to real life, or perhaps reality TV, for inspiration. His purpose seemed to be to demythologise the Parsifal tale, to render it more human.
The amphitheatre was now the hall of the grail knights, here clad in Hovis-ad argyle jumpers. Gurnemanz, the sonorous Franz Josef Selig, was presented as a sort of business manager to the brotherhood, complete with suited assistants and an unexplained small boy. Titurel, in a wheelchair, and Amfortas, on crutches, were equally prosaically drawn.
Kundry wasn't the raving wild woman of the woods we usually see. The ginger-wigged and emerald-gowned Waltraud Meier was composed and elegant, offering her healing balsam to Gurnemanz with the efficient manner of a busy GP.
Benny from Crossroads
Did they show Crossroads in Poland? The stumbling beanie-sporting Parsifal of Christopher Ventris bore a striking resemblance to Benny, not so much innocent as just plain dim.
With characters drawn on such a decidedly human scale, it was no surprise that the dead swan Parsifal staggered in with was either a PETA-baiting original, or the most lifelike facsimile you could imagine.
It was a pity that Warlikowski again seemed unable to trust the music alone to hold the audience. FX intruded as the amphitheatre spun around to provide a backdrop for some smartypants word-projections of a fairly obvious nature during Gurnemanz's long narrative sections. Duplicating the surtitles - mostly in the wrong place - was more confusing than illuminating.
For the second act, quite properly a complete contrast from the first, the amphitheatre was bathed in red light to resemble a Roman ruin. Klingsor, all in red, was, like the grail knights, accessorised with a gratuitous small boy. Evgeny Nikitin, seemingly hewn from the same forest as Dmitri Hvorostovsky, exercised a little effortfully camp villainry, but the undoubted power of his performance lay in his darkly commanding voice. Kundry was shown as the victim of his physical power, brute force, not any mystical enchantment.
Klingsor's flower maidens were glamorous Hollywood beauties seated at cocktail tables. Their seduction of Parsifal involved whipping off his dinner suit, then tying him in his sturdy M&S-style vest and underpants to a chair. Intentionally, or probably not, it was the only real laugh of the night. Though the inexplicably spear-free second act climax ran it a close second, as the twitching Klingsor was felled Dracula-style by a gigantic cross of laser red light.
There was huge applause for Nikitin, and even more for Meier and Ventris at the second act curtain call. Meier shot a few notes wide of goal, but was otherwise at her radiant best. It's a measure of the acting ability of Christopher Ventris that he's so different from one role to the next, even from one production to the next, that his own character never seems to impose on a production. Here as ever he gave an unblemished performance.
It was all going so well. Then Warlikowski made the mistake of prefacing the third act with a screening of the last few minutes of Roberto Rossellini's Germany Year Zero, where a small boy commits suicide in the ruins of postwar Berlin. Again I wondered quite what we were supposed to get from this -- outside the context of the film from which it was taken it's simply a meaningless stroll ending in a meaningless death. A sprinkling of applause was overwhelmed by boos and catcalls, silenced immediately the music began.
And at last the purpose of the small boy on stage was revealed. Warlikowski made the unusual choice of finishing with a family celebration, glasses raised all round, rather than Kundry's death. Parsifal became the father, Kundry the mother, Amfortas the grandfather in a rather dubious rewrite of Wagner's ending. Although faith (foi) had been one of the words laboriously spelled out on the opening screen, it seemed this was not to be understood in the religious sense of blind devotion to the unknown, but in the everyday enactment of the bonds of human relationships. In this sense at least Warlikowski can be credited with casting a fresh light on Parsifal.
But the final honours of the evening have to go to Hartmut Haenchen. His dense, pacy reading had both weight and excitement, and demonstrated perfectly that when people criticise Parsifal for its supposed dullness, it's the conductor who's at fault, not the composer.
He nearly deafened me by placing the first act 'offstage' trumpets a few feet away from me at the side of the orchestra stalls, and lost cohesion in the choir by setting them around the balconies. But the boldness of the intent could not be faulted, and the effect, while flawed, had undeniable dramatic impact, as did his selective suspended silences. And he coaxed the most refined playing imaginable from the orchestra, a fat, burnished string sound and the most polished brass.